A CEO search, an evolving GM role, and more from a fascinating U.S. Soccer board meeting

Carlos Cordeiro (left) and Earnie Stewart (second from left) spoke during and after Friday's U.S. Soccer board meeting. Jay Berhalter, brother of Gregg Berhalter (second from right), was once considered a top candidate to replace Dan Flynn (right) as CEO. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
Carlos Cordeiro (left) and Earnie Stewart (second from left) spoke during and after Friday's U.S. Soccer board meeting. Jay Berhalter, brother of Gregg Berhalter (second from right), was once considered a top candidate to replace Dan Flynn (right) as CEO. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

CHICAGO — U.S. Soccer’s most influential backroom leaders convened at a plush hotel off Michigan Avenue here on Friday and Saturday for a board meeting that doubled as a window into the state of the federation.

Outside, there has been unrelenting criticism. Inside, there have been acknowledgements that things must change. Both dynamics framed Friday’s discussions, during a three-plus-hour open session and 40 minutes of roundtable interviews afterward.

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The true deep dive into U.S. Soccer’s well-being is occurring Saturday during a closed “executive session.” But Friday was revealing in its own right. Below are the most important and interesting insights from the entire afternoon.

The status of the CEO search

U.S. Soccer has been without a CEO since Dan Flynn stepped down in September. The search for his successor has been ongoing since February. Current COO Jay Berhalter, the brother of U.S. men’s national team coach Gregg, once seemed like a favorite for the position. But some anonymous Glassdoor reviews and an eye-opening New York Times article that detailed a “toxic” workplace culture coincided with a reboot of the search process over the summer.

Cordeiro detailed some, though not much, of that process while speaking with a small group of reporters on Friday:

  • The search committee, Cordeiro said, comprises eight board members: himself, U.S. Soccer vice president Cindy Parlow Cone, MLS commissioner Don Garber, independent director Patti Hart, independent director Lisa Carnoy, U.S. Youth Soccer Association chair Pete Zopfi, U.S. Adult Soccer Association VP Richard Moeller, and Athletes’ Council chair Chris Ahrens.

  • Cordeiro said the committee spent Thursday interviewing a shortlist of candidates – men and women, “from across the United States, and even one from abroad. They’re diverse, highly qualified.” When asked if there are internal candidates, he responded, “I said at the start there were internal candidates.” When asked if there are still internal candidates, he said, “I’m not gonna comment beyond that.”

  • There is no specific timetable for a hire, but the most realistic one is early 2020. “We don’t want to rush an appointment, and then find out it’s the wrong appointment,” Cordeiro said. “Because this person is going to take us to ‘26 and beyond.”

  • Here’s Cordeiro’s version of the process from February, when Flynn announced he’d be stepping down, until now: “We started working with a search firm in February … that took us through May, three or four months. And to be honest, I wasn’t happy with the results. So we added a new firm, a new organization came on board on the 6th of September. The second firm produced a new list of candidates that the search committee has been working through ever since.”

Is it fair to conclude, then, that the scathing Glassdoor reviews, which began appearing in May, impacted the process?

“Funny enough, no,” Cordeiro said. “I know why you might ask that question, but the truth is, long before June, we felt we needed to look more extensively. … The decision we took in May was to open it up at the end of the summer, more than we had.”

U.S. Soccer’s workplace reforms

The workplace culture in question, however, has been a major topic within and around U.S. Soccer recently. Whether or not it altered the CEO search’s course, “You do pay attention to this stuff. No question you do,” Cordeiro said. He later called the Glassdoor reviews “a good wake-up call. It alerted us to, potentially, some tremor lines.”

So in September, U.S. Soccer enlisted the Leadership Research Institute, an organizational development consulting firm, to conduct a review of the federation. Cordeiro held a town hall at Soccer House, the federation’s Chicago headquarters. Staffers say they filled out an extensive survey, 50-60 questions, the first of its kind in U.S. Soccer’s history. The results were presented to senior staff last month.

“Some pretty telling stories came out of that,” Cordeiro said. “The organization now needs more formalized communication mechanisms, so that staff know what’s going on. That wasn’t happening. That was happening by word of mouth.”

Reforms are already underway. USSF’s chief talent and inclusion officer, Tonya Wallach, presented to the board for the first time on Friday, and her presentation was perhaps the most impressive of the bunch. Yahoo Sports contributor Caitlin Murray will have much more on this topic in the near future.

What will the new USMNT GM do?

One item on Saturday’s agenda is Earnie Stewart’s vision for his old job. Stewart was hired as U.S. men’s national team general manager in 2018, but promoted to a sporting director role when Kate Markgraf was hired as women’s national team GM earlier this year. That left the USMNT GM role vacant. A search to fill it is ongoing.

But, what, exactly, will that USMNT GM do? Will his (or her, but probably his) role be identical to the one Stewart stepped into last year?

“No. No no no,” Stewart told Yahoo Sports after Friday’s roundtable had concluded. “I’d say that has evolved.”

It has evolved, Stewart said, based on his experiences in the role, and based on “what I think is important, with how I look at our organization.” He couldn’t go into detail before presenting to the board on Saturday. “But,” he reiterated, “the GM will have some other responsibilities than I had when I started.”

He was able to divulge one key difference: When he came aboard, “the GM role was solely focused on the men’s national team. I see a little bit more to that role than only the men’s national team.” The new GM will have say “when it comes to performance environments towards our youth national teams. Who better than somebody who’s in that environment to be able to get that alignment down to [the youth teams].”

Once that GM hire is made, Stewart confirmed, his sporting director role will have equal influence on the men’s and women’s sides.

U.S. Soccer’s long-term evolution – will it include a move?

U.S. Soccer is evolving. That it has “grown from 80-odd staff to 180-odd over the last seven years,” as Cordeiro said Friday, is not news. That it is “projected to go to close to 300 in a matter of a few years,” as Cordeiro also said, perhaps is.

And “to be self-critical, I don’t think we managed that growth as best as we probably should have,” Cordeiro admitted. “Up until very recently, we still managed U.S. Soccer like it was some 50-person organization run out of some kitchen. Not to be disparaging, but U.S. Soccer House is a little bit like that, right?”

The answer is yes. Yes, it is. 

“It’s a lovely old house,” Cordeiro said of the 19th-century Chicago mansions that have housed the federation since the 1990s. “But it’s not the most conducive to meeting. We don’t have meeting rooms. We’re taking offices and cutting them into four, and putting dividers up, because we’re running out of space. Don’t tell the fire people that. But we’re probably on the edge of a violation. It took Glassdoor to wake us up to the fact that our workspace was inadequate. … You know, there’s no place to have lunch. There’s no coffee room. The dining room doubles as a board room. That’s the stuff we’re very focused on.”

And it’s why the federation will soon be on the move. To where exactly? That will be determined over the coming months and years. But at Soccer House, it is “quickly running out of space,” chief administrative officer Brian Remedi said during Friday’s meeting.

To address the immediate problem, the fed has selected Cushman & Wakefield, a real estate brokerage firm, to lead a search for leased office space within Chicago. But their long-term plans are grander.

Cordeiro and Stewart delved into them during their session with reporters. Their goal, in a perfect world, would be to bring the entire U.S. Soccer operation under one roof at a national training center, replete with everything from administrative offices to medical facilities to fields. Cordeiro cited even “the tiniest little countries in Europe” as examples. 

“The reality is, this is a massive country,” Cordeiro acknowledged. “We are as big, if not bigger, than all of Europe together. We are one federation for all of that. So … Do we have one training center? Do we have multiple training centers? Don’t assume that everything is going to be in one location. It could be in one location. It could be in three or four locations. It’s a compromise between having everybody together versus the reality.”

U.S. Soccer’s financial plan, and the impact of lawsuits

A big topic at the board meeting was the federation’s five-year strategic plan, which, beginning with the 2019 financial year, calls for over $100 million of net investments in the sport. I covered that – and the impact various lawsuits are having on it – in a story Friday night.

Here’s a good – and slightly edited, for clarity and brevity – summary from Cordeiro:

“Prior to Copa America [Centenario] – one-off, extraordinary profit – we had a reserve of $60 or $70 million. That accumulated over many, many years. [Then] 2016 comes along and we have this event. …  We generated that one-off profit of around $80 million. That’s what left us with the $162 million [surplus], to be precise.

“We’re not a bank. We’re not there to accumulate money. … So this gave us an opportunity, back in 2017-18, to think more strategically about accelerating or fast-forwarding some of the investments in some of our programming. That might’ve happened over time, but here’s an opportunity to accelerate that. So we came up with a five-year business plan.

“We had to stagger those investments. … It’s thinking intelligently about long-term investments we can sustain over a long period. So the idea was to build up, phase in that growth, starting in 2017-2018, 2018-19, and so on.

“So the concept of deficits isn’t new. Isn’t new to the fact that we had legal expenses this year. We’ve always had planned deficits. The deficits [are] to grow our investments in our programming. What’s happened in the last few months, and what will accelerate into next year, is that we have these unforeseen legal expenses that are now basically coming to bear, and they are the reason principally – not exclusively, but principally – for why our deficits are bigger than what we had planned in 17-18, at the start of the five-year plan. I think the figure for this fiscal year, which ends in March, I think the legal fees are the order of 9 or 10 million dollars.”

More tidbits and takeaways

Now, to jump around to various items:

  • On the subject of finances: USSF CFO Pinky Raina said the federation spent $20.3 million on the USWNT in the 2019 financial year – the 12-month period ending March 31, 2019, so not including the World Cup – compared to $15 million on the USMNT. Here’s how that stacks up against past years, per U.S. Soccer’s audited financial statements:

Source: U.S. Soccer financial statements
Source: U.S. Soccer financial statements
  • How much did missing the World Cup affect revenue? Not much, according to Cordeiro, because the federation’s commercial contracts, negotiated in 2014-15 and running through 2022, include guarantees. “Did we see a dip in interest? Of course we did,” Cordeiro said. But financially, “it’s all hypothetical, our revenues are locked in, and that was the benefit of having a long-term deal.”

  • U.S. Soccer gave each of its employees a $2,000 bonus after the USWNT won the 2019 World Cup.

  • Markgraf said she has put together a proposed 2020 calendar for the USWNT. It features 10-11 games between now and the Olympics, including a send-off series, with opponents to be determined later.

  • U.S. Soccer will hold a town hall in the new year where Markgraf and Vlatko Andonovski will lay out their USWNT vision for federation staffers.

  • Speaking of which: The entire federation staff was invited to Friday’s board meeting for the first time. A few dozen showed up. (Many others are currently on the road.)

  • One interesting moment came during Stewart’s presentation to the board. One of his slides featured a table of USMNT average ages by World Cup cycle. It claimed to show that “This year, we played with the youngest and most inexperienced group of players we have ever had in a World Cup qualifying cycle.”

Source: Earnie Stewart's presentation to the U.S. Soccer board (Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports reproduction of part of the table)
Source: Earnie Stewart's presentation to the U.S. Soccer board (Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports reproduction of part of the table)
  • But Sunil Gulati called out a problem: When are those ages calculated? At the start of the cycle, Stewart said. Gulati pressed: What does that mean? Stewart explained that from 1998 through 2018, the ages reflected the start of the penultimate round of World Cup qualifying. This time around, they reflected the start of the Nations League – which began a year earlier. So it’s “not apples to apples here,” Gulati pointed out. The numbers, therefore, were deceiving.

  • Gulati got laughs from the room when he gave a USSF staffer some crap for being a Tottenham fan. The staffer, named Gavin, pointed out that the USWNT trained at Spurs’ facilities before flying to France to win the World Cup. To which Gulati responded: “Well in, Gavin. Well in, son.”

  • Cordeiro provided a minor 2026 World Cup update: “We’re close to finalizing a strategy for the first phase of the organization, which is the period that will cover the selection of the 16 venues. You all know we have 23 on the shortlist. It’s a tough task to go from 23 to 16. That is likely to take up most of next year, and the very early part of 2021.”

  • Garber announced that the 2020 MLS Cup final will be on Nov. 7.

  • Cone, whose vice president term is up in February, and U.S. Adult Soccer president John Motta are the two candidates (so far) for VP. That’ll be voted on at February’s annual general meeting in Nashville.

More to come from us on the board meeting next week.

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Henry Bushnell is a features writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook

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